Novi — Throughout Pat Donnelly’s 30-year coaching career, very few basketball players compare to U-D Jesuit senior Cassius Winston.
And that’s including the 20 years he spent in college at the Division I, II and III levels.
“In terms of his overall ability, knowledge of the game and understanding, he’s right up there with all the best of them,” said Donnelly, who’s in his eighth year at U-D. “I’ve had guys that have played professionally and have been All-Americans. (Winston) just has a skill that’s God-given.”
It wasn’t until middle school that Winston, a self-described late bloomer, began to attract attention.
“He’s been with us since seventh grade (at U-D Jesuit Academy) and he probably could have played for us as a seventh grader,” Donnelly said. “He got in the starting lineup the second game of his freshman year and he astounded a lot of people.”
While Winston has gotten stronger and developed a more consistent jump shot over his high school career, it is his uncanny ability to see the floor that has attracted fans, coaches, and even former Michigan State star and Golden Warrior Draymond Green and former Detroit Lion Ndamukong Suh, who were on hand for U-D’s 59-12 win over Birmingham Brother Rice on Jan. 15.
“(My strength) is having a feel for what needs to go on at what time on the court,” said Winston, the fifth-ranked point guard in the nation’s 2016 class by ESPN and 247sports who has committed to Michigan State. “Sometimes you need to make a different type of pass and I just have a knack for feeling that.”
Winston (6-foot-1) isn’t flashy nor concerned about padding his stats. Rather, he considers himself to be a playmaker who’s capable of doing whatever the team needs, whether it’s getting a stop, making a pass or scoring points.
“He doesn’t necessarily pass the eye test. He’s not going to blow you away with his athleticism, but his ballhandling skills are so good and he’s such a great passer that he’s just very difficult to guard,” Donnelly said. “That’s what really drew the attention of (Michigan State) coach (Tom) Izzo when he watched him play. He’s got unbelievable court vision.
“Coach Izzo called him the best passer in high school since Magic Johnson. That’s some pretty high praise.”
When it comes to opposing teams, nobody has witnessed Winston’s capabilities firsthand more than longtime Warren De La Salle coach Greg Esler and Detroit Catholic Central coach Bill Dyer, whose teams are a combined 1-16 versus U-D during Winston’s time there.
“I think he’s the best point guard since (former Chicago Bull and Birmingham Brother Rice’s) B.J. Armstrong,” said Esler, now in his 23rd season at De La Salle. “He handles the ball, he’s very unselfish and a great leader. When it’s crunch time and they need a basket or something special to happen, he’s there to deliver.
“He’s always in control of the situation and he never gets rattled. … I mean he has all the intangibles, all the skills and I think the biggest thing is he keeps his composure all the time.”
For Dyer, Winston and ex-Spartans standout Kalin Lucas, who played at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, are the two best players he’s ever seen in his 10 years at C.C.
“He’s got just a super smooth demeanor about him,” Dyer said of Winston. “Everybody that ever watches him, coaches against him or plays against him just has a lot of respect for him because he doesn’t talk. He’s not a big-timer; he just plays hard, does his job and makes everybody around him better.”
In Tuesday’s 77-56 win over C.C., Winston sparked several key runs with perfectly placed outlet passes and lobs and showcased his ability to create his own shot, finishing with 19 points and nine assists to keep U-D’s perfect record intact at 11-0. He is averaging 24 points, six assists and 4.5 rebounds a game this season.
“Oh man, he does everything for us,” said U-D senior guard Matt Schearer, a third-year varsity player. “The last three years he’s led us in every statistical category, whether it’s steals, rebounds, assists or points.
“His basketball IQ is second to none. He sees the floor better than anyone I’ve ever seen. He finds his teammates and knows where everyone is. He’s just an all-around player.”
Over the past three seasons, Winston has helped take U-D’s program to new heights with three straight Catholic League A-B Division championships and back-to-back Class A state semifinal appearances.
Donnelly believes he’ll be able to make the same impact at Michigan State.
“In the previous 40 years, U-D had won two Catholic League titles. We’ve won three in a row with Cassius at the point guard,” Donnelly said. “Since his freshman year, we’ve won the Catholic League, we’ve been to two final fours and we’ve been to three regional finals. Those are things that weren’t in existence before he got there, so that says a lot.
“There are a lot of guys on the team that contributed greatly to that success, but he’s been the one constant that’s been there through all of that.”